Is it time to bring back the London Borough of Acton? That was the striking suggestion from architect Indy Johar as the Centre for London think tank launched a new report calling for more power to the people at neighbourhood level.
The report, Act Local: Empowering London’s Neighbourhoods, includes analysis and essays by neighbourhood practitioners as well as an overview of the capital’s development as a “city of villages”. by long-time academic London watcher Tony Travers.
It stops short of recommending a fresh look at the current 32 borough system, despite Johar’s contention that “London’s historic town halls” could be at the “forefront of a movement of neighbourhood-scale governance”.
It does nevertheless highlight the continuing importance of London’s neighbourhoods, not only as the places where “much of everyday life” happens, but also as “places of identity, with the smaller pre-1965 metropolitan boroughs continuing to dominate” – a 2018 Centre for London report, London Identities, found focus group participants talking of “living in Battersea, Bermondsey or Bethnal Green, more so than Wandsworth, Southwark or Tower Hamlets”.
And it highlights some disturbing statistics: while 65 per cent of Londoners feel it is important to be able to influence local decisions, according to government surveys just 35 per cent believe they can do so; and just seven per cent of people trust their council to act in the best interests of their local area on planning and development issues.
At the same time, policies designed to boost community involvement, from neighbourhood planning forums overseeing local development to new powers to set up parish councils and the Localism Act 2011’s Community Right to Bid to take over local buildings, had had limited impact.
While the capital had 79 designated neighbourhood planning forums, just 13 completed neighbourhood plans were in place and nine boroughs still had no planning forums at all. Just one new parish council had been set up, in Queen’s Park in Westminster, and just one building in London, the Ivy House pub in Nunhead, had been bought under the Right to Bid.
Meanwhile the number of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) had grown steadily since the first was established in Kingston in 2005. Responding to concerns at that time that business interests were not well represented at council level, the BIDs are funded through a levy on local businesses to support local “public realm” improvements and the local economy.
There are now 63 BIDs across the capital, the report found, with a remit extending beyond the “clean, green and safe” agenda to a wider and more strategic “place-shaping” role.
Barriers to community empowerment, the report found, included “cultural” reluctance to share power, lack of resources, with less grant funding available as well as wider constraints on council spending since 2010, and sometimes complex bureaucratic requirements. As well as recommendations that government set up a community wealth fund to support community and neighbourhood development and transform community rights to bid for assets of community value into a more extensive “Right to Buy”, the report urges councils to make formal commitments to devolve power locally.
And it proposes new “Community Improvement Districts” as a “more flexible hybrid of the Business Improvement District model and the civic focus of parish councils”. A CID could be set up at the request of a local neighbourhood group, mandated by a local vote every five years, and have the power to raise a levy on council tax payers and a focus on priorities agreed locally.
“Neighbourhood level participation can play an important role in shaping places, strengthening communities and enhancing public services, but there is untapped potential”, Centre for London researcher Joe Wills said at the launch. “The government must kick start a new era of localism.”
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